Sermon Illustrations on transformation


Conforming vs. Transforming

Conforming to boundary markers too often substitutes for authentic transformation.

The church I grew up in had its boundary markers. A prideful or resentful pastor could have kept his job, but if ever the pastor was caught smoking a cigarette, he would’ve been fired. Not because anyone in the church actually thought smoking a worse sin than pride or resentment, but because smoking defined who was in our subculture and who wasn’t—it was a boundary marker.

As I was growing up, having a “quiet time” became a boundary marker, a measure of spiritual growth. If someone had asked me about my spiritual life, I would immediately think, Have I been having regular and lengthy quiet time? My initial thought was not, Am I growing more loving toward God and toward people?

Boundary markers change from culture to culture, but the dynamic remains the same. If people do not experience authentic transformation, then their faith will deteriorate into a search for the boundary markers that masquerade as evidence of a changed life.

John Ortberg, “True (and False) Transformation,” Leadership, p. 102.

Celebrating Communion in Today’s Culture

What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we are increasingly obsessed with and yet deeply afraid and ashamed of food, where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food, and where we have gone a long way toward losing our sense of food as a blessing that ties us to life and others?

Or what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables, as well as all the Marthas waiting on these tables?

Patrick T. McCormick, “How Could We Break the Lord’s Bread in a Foreign Land? The Eucharist in ‘Diet America,’” Horizons 25, no. 1 (1998): 47.

The First Word of Grace Spoken Over Us

Baptism is the first word of grace spoken over us by the church. In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us. They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves.

When my daughters were baptized, we had a big celebration with cupcakes and champagne. Together with our community we sang “Jesus Loves Me” over the newly baptized. It was a proclamation: before you know it, before you doubt it, before you confess it, before you can sing it yourself, you are beloved by God, not by your effort but because of what Christ has done on your behalf. We are weak, but he is strong.

In many liturgical churches baptismal fonts are situated at the back of the sanctuary. As people walk into church to worship, they pass by it. This symbolizes how baptism is the entrance into the people of God. It reminds us that before we begin to worship—before we even sit down in church—we are marked as people who belong to Jesus by grace alone, swept up into good news, which we received as a gift from God and from believers who went before us.

Taken Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, pp.17-18. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Grace from the Beginning

It’s remarkable that when the Father declares at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus hasn’t yet done much of anything that many would find impressive. He hasn’t yet healed anyone or resisted Satan in the wilderness. He hasn’t yet been crucified or resurrected. It would make more sense if the Father’s proud announcement came after something grand and glorious—the triumphant moment after feeding a multitude or the big reveal after Lazarus is raised…

Baptism is the first word of grace spoken over us by the church. In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us.

They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves. When my daughters were baptized, we had a big celebration with cupcakes and champagne. Together with our community we sang “Jesus Loves Me” over the newly baptized. It was a proclamation: before you know it, before you doubt it, before you confess it, before you can sing it yourself, you are beloved by God, not by your effort but because of what Christ has done on your behalf. We are weak, but he is strong.

Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, p.16. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Training vs. Trying

There is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.

… Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely.  This is what the apostle Paul means when he encourages his young protégé Timothy to “train yourself in godliness.”

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, Zondervan, 2002.

Transformation Does Not Simply Come from Information

The goal is not for us to get through the Scriptures.  The goal is to get the Scriptures through us. Some churches give people the idea that the only way to transformation is knowledge.  There is an assumption that as people’s knowledge of the Bible rises, their level of spiritual maturity rises with it.

… Knowledge about the Bible is an indispensable good.  But knowledge does not by itself lead to spiritual transformation.  When Paul urged the Christians at Rome to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” he was thinking of far more than just the acquisition of information.  “Mind” refers to a whole range of perceiving, understanding, valuing, and feeling that in turn determines the way we live

…While knowledge is vital and should be prized, it also poses some dangers.  It often demolishes humility.  The sobriquet “know-it-all” is never used as a compliment.  The Bible itself contains some warnings: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Both human experience and the Bible teach that increased knowledge – even knowledge of the Scriptures – does not automatically produce transformed people.

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002, pp.188-189).

Two Words for Life

The Greek language, in which the New Testament was written, has two words for life. One (bios) means “mere biological existence”; the other (zoe) means “lie in all it’s fullness.” What we are being offered is fullness of life, which not even death itself can destroy. We are not being offered an endless extension of our biological existence but rather a transformation of that existence.

Stuart Briscoe, I Believe, p 104.

We Cannot Rescue Ourselves

The truth about significant soul transformation is this—change is possible, but it is harder than we want and takes longer than we expect…. real change requires more than willpower and easy, simple steps. We cannot rescue ourselves. There are no shortcuts, no easy paths and no quick fixes.

The more mature we are in our Christian faith, the more aware we are of the depth of change needed within our souls. From a practical point of view, anyone who has attempted to change harsh, negative self-talk, reactive anger, feelings of worthlessness, a preoccupation with pornography, a persistent grumpy attitude or persistent feelings of frustration understands that real soul transformation is not simple. If we are going to substantially change, something will have to die. But our false self never volunteers for its funeral.

Taken from The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection by Richard Plass and James Cofield, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.149-150 by Richard Plass and James Cofield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

What the With-God Life Looks Like

There is a consistent pattern in Scripture of what happens in a life that God wants to use and improve:

-There is always a call.  God asks an ordinary person to engage in an act of extraordinary trust, that of getting out of the boat.

-There is always fear.  God has an inextinguishable habit of asking people to do thing that are scary to them…

-There is always reassurance.  God promises His presence. … God also promises to give whatever gifts are needed to fulfill his


-There is always a decision…

-There is always a changed life.  Those who say yes to God’s call don’t walk the walk perfectly – not by a long shot.  But because they say yes to God, they learn and grow even from their failures.  And they become part of his actions to redeem the world.

Those who say no are changed too.  They become a little harder, a little more resistant to his calling, a little more likely to say no the next time.  Whatever the decision, it always changes a life—and it changes the world that little life touches.

John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).


From Mediocre to Super Bowl Champions

On Monday morning, February 2008, every sports page in the world heralded the New York Giants’ astonishing Super Bowl upset over the undefeated New England Patriots. And the big story within the story? Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin pulled off the shocer with…nice. Entering the season with his boss grumbling, “He’s our coach this year; we’ll see what happens after that,” Coughlin decided he needed a leadership makeover. Jackie McMullen of the Boston Globe reported an incident that took place on media day, seventy-two hours before the big game:

A boy no more than eight or nine years old was handed a microphone…and he made a beeline toward Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin, who spotting the junior inquisitor leaned over in an almost grandfatherly fashion and tenderly attended to his question. “I hear yo’ve been a lot nicer this year,” said the child. “Who put you up to that?” Said the coach to gales of laughter.

After going 8-8 in the 2007 season, Tom Coughlin met with his veteran players. They told him he yelled too much, communicated too little, and listened barely at all. Veteran player Michael Strahan calls the change “a transformation, sometimes I barely recognize him.” (Boston Globe, January 30, 2008)

Tom Coughlin spent three years trying to change his players. It didn’t work. So he decided to change himself. And that’s what changed his players. Now they’re all sporting Super Bowl rings.

Bill Robinson, Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus, Zondervan Publishing.

The Greatest Knight

In a documentary film on the medieval statesmen William the Marshal, professor Thomas Asbridge shares his experience of the power behind Marshal’s knighting ceremony. It provides an interesting corollary to the Christian sacraments and the transformation that (potentially) takes place in them.:

For me one of the most evocative moments from William’s life is that instance when he is created as a knight. But the most important part of that occasion for him, as it is for all other knights, is the moment when the sword is girded to his side…It’s a moment of transformation when they go from being one type of human being to another.

Here is an act that has no intrinsic magic. It is, in one sense, merely a symbol. But symbolic acts can be hugely significant if and when they are performed in certain contexts. Indeed, they can be transforming.

William would have girded a sword to his side day after day. But on this occasion it was literally life-changing, because it was part of a symbolic ceremony in a particular social and cultural context. It took on a significance that went beyond the bare act itself. As Asbridge says, “It’s a moment of transformation when they go from being one type of human being to another.”

Taken from “The Greatest Knight: William the Marshal”, BBC Two, broadcast on November 1, 2014.

How Transformation Happens

In The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith describes a new Christian he happened to know who came to him one day feeling dejected. He was so excited to be a follower of Jesus, but he just couldn’t shake an addiction that had developed prior to his becoming a Christian. 

Carey, you see, struggled with pornography. He was in sales and so part of his job was traveling from city to city, staying in hotel rooms. The temptation was always there. When Carey became a Christian, he thought this temptation would go away but it didn’t. When they met, “Carey’s face suddenly looked sad. I really need your help,” he said. “I will if I can” Smith replied. “Well, I’m really conflicted in my walk with God right now, it seems the harder I try the worse things get. My family is fine, and my work is going well, but in my relationship with God, I’m at the end of my rope. ‘Usually a good place to be, I said, but he gave only a puzzled glance.”

After a bit more talking, Smith interrupted, “who are you?” He asked. “Well, I’m a Christian.” “What does that mean? I asked”

“Well it means that I believe in Jesus and am trying to follow his commands. I go to church, study the Bible and have devotional times when I can find an hour here or there. I try not to sin, you know; I try to be a good person, but I know that deep down I’m still just a sinner.” “I have no doubt that you’re trying, Carey,” I said. “And I also sense that you’ve been trying quite a while, with all of your effort, but it isn’t helping.” “Exactly” he said.”

“So let me see if I have this right. You’re a Christian, but you’re also a sinner. Is that right? Yes. So if you’re a sinner, then what behavior would be normative for you? I asked “Well, I guess sinning. But that doesn’t seem right. “And it certainly doesn’t feel right, either, I suspect. The reason, Carey, that it doesn’t seem right or feel right is because it isn’t right. Your approach is consistently failing , right?” Right, he concurred.

Maybe there’s another way…and that other way is what I want to talk with you all about this morning. The focus, ultimately, is about the stories we tell ourselves about our identity. Are we, first and foremost sinners, or, as our scripture text told us, “new creations, where the old has gone and the new has come?” In order to get there, we need to continue to put to death the language of “I’m just a rotten sinner” and replace it with “I am a new creation”.

I think a part of the issue here is that we are so aware of our sinfulness, and if we’re not, it’s probably because we are a sociopath, that it feels better to refer to ourselves as just a “lousy sinner,” or even a “forgiven sinner”.

This way, we feel as though we are being honest about our shortcomings. But the problem is that when we use that language all the time, inside our heads, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so we find ourselves like Carey, stuck in our sins.

As Smith has accurately put it: “the teaching that we are fundamentally sinners leads to failure.” And this is hard for us because many of us come out of traditions where pastors spend their entire sermon yelling at the church to get their acts together, that they sinners and that God is angry at them. The preacher who yells at his church may have a lot of remorseful Christians feeling guilty at the end of the service, but they don’t have any tools to change, so ultimately they will go back to the same struggles they started with.

Now don’t get me wrong, sin is a problem…in fact, it is most of the problem when it comes to our lives. There are churches that will gloss right over sin as though it doesn’t exist, and that is a problem too.

But when we start with our sin nature, when we focus on it incessantly, then it can become very difficult to avoid doing it. It’s kind of like if I tell you not to think of an apple. What’s the first thing you are going to do: think of an apple because I just put it in your mind.

So, we need to shift our perceptions. We need to shift our stories, and our scripture text gives us a good idea of how to do that. After spending a couple of months meeting with James Bryan Smith, his narratives, his story began to change. Instead of seeing himself primarily as a sinner, he saw himself as a child of God. A couple years later James ran into Carey and it was clear his life had been transformed. He told James “The day I got it was when I was preparing for a trip out of town. I used to get nervous, and I would pray, “Lord, I don’t want to fail you again. But this time I had no anxiety.

“When I got to the hotel room, I walked to the television, closed the doors of the console and smiled. I whispered to myself, “I know who I am. I am a child of God. I house the fullness of God. I was never tempted to turn the TV on, I’m not prideful, I know that sin remains, as you taught me. But it doesn’t reign anymore. I used my free time to read and rest. I knew I could sin, and I knew God would still love me. But I didn’t want to sin. That when I knew it had finally taken root in me. I never knew it could be this easy.

Brothers and Sisters, you too house the fullness of God. You are not defined by your sins but by your existence In Christ. Our job is to change the stories in our heads to match that reality.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (The Apprentice Series), InterVarsity Press.

A Life Re-Defined by The Spirit of God

In his excellent book on worship, The Dangerous Act of Worship, pastor and president of Fuller Seminary Mark Labberton shares a story of the transformation of one of his former congregants:

Ben was a very successful man. His professional life flourished. His family life was challenging, as a parent of several teenagers. For him, Christian faith was a distant and disconnected reality. But he began to have conversations about it with his wife and later with me.

One Sunday I was surprised but pleased to see him in the worship service. As he approached me at the door afterward, his eyes began to fill with tears. He explained that while visiting Washington, D.C, for a professional conference, he had gone to visit the National Cathedral. He slipped into an empty side chapel and sat down for some quiet time and reflection. There, unexpected and unsought, God’s Spirit simply came upon him. Ben became a new person. The awe and wonder of grace and truth beyond his own mind, his own questions, his own needs, simply met him and changed him. It was as though his life was utterly redefined, and it has been ever since.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton. Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Not Getting the Message

Reading the Bible without applying it to your life can be downright dangerous. On August 3, 1996, Melvin Hitchens, sat on his front porch and read the Bible. After his Bible reading, this 66 year old New Orleans resident went in his house and retrieved a .45 caliber hand gun. He went back outside, and shot his neighbors!

He killed Donna Jett as she swept her sidewalk and injured Darryl Jett while he was mowing. Family members and neighborhood residents testified that Hitchens and the Jett’s had a running feud over the care of their yards and the cleanliness of the gutters. No one, however, had an explanation how a man could put down his Bible, and commit such a violent act! Positive transformation requires the application of God’s Word. (Source: Houston Chronicle, 8/5/96, p.7A)

Andy Cook

Transformation in the Heartbreak Hotel

It was on November 28, 1965, that fighter pilot Howard Rutledge’s plane was shot down right into the hands of the North Vietnam Army. Quickly he was shuttled to the “Heartbreak Hotel,” one of the notorious prisons in Hanoi. These are his own words describing the experience:

When the door slammed and the key turned in that rusty, iron lock, a feeling of utter loneliness swept over me. I lay down on that cold cement slab in my 6×6 prison. The smell of human excrement burned my nostrils. A rat, large as a small cat, scampered across the slab beside me. The walls and floors and ceiling were caked with filth. Bars covered a tiny window high above the door. I was cold and hungry; my body ached from the swollen joints and sprained muscles…

It’s hard to decide what solitary confinement can do to uneven and defeat a man. You quickly tire of standing up or sitting down, sleeping or being awake. There are no books, no paper or pencils, no magazines or newspapers. The only colors you see are drab gray and dirty brown. Months or years may go by when you don’t see the sunrise or the moon, green grass or flowers. You are locked in, alone and silent in your filthy little cell breathing stale, rotten air and trying to keep your sanity.

During those long periods of enforced reflection, it became so much easier to separate the important from the trivial, the worth-while from the waste…

My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for steak…I wanted to know about the part of me that will never die…I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church…It took prison to show me how empty life is without God…

On August 31. After twenty-eight days of torture, I could remember I had children but not how many. I said Phyllis’ name over and over again so I would not forget. I prayed for strength. It was on that twenty-eighth night I made God a promise. If I survived this ordeal, the first Sunday back in freedom I would take Phyllis and my family to their church and…confess my faith and join the church. This wasn’t a deal with God to get me through that last miserable night, it was a promise made after months of thought. It took prison and hours of painful reflection to realize how much I needed God and the community of believers. After I made God that promise, again I prayed for strength to make it through the night.

When the morning dawned through the crack in the bottom of that solid prison door, I thanked God for His mercy.

Howard and Phyllis Rutledge with Mel White and Lyla White, In the Presence of Mine Enemies-1965-1973: A Prisoner of War.

A Transformation of Stone

In 1463, members of the City Council of Firenze (Florence) Italy decided they needed a monument to enhance their city. They commissioned a sculptor to carve a giant statue to stand in front of city hall. Someone suggested a biblical character wrought in the neoclassical style, an expression of beauty and strength.

They approached Agostino di Duccio, who agreed to their terms. Duccio went to the quarry near Carrara and marked off a 19-foot slab to be cut from the white marble. However, he had the slab cut too thin.

When the block was removed, it fell, leaving a deep fracture down one side. The sculptor declared the stone useless and demanded another, but the city council refused. Consequently, the gleaming block of marble lay on its side for the next 38 years, a source of embarrassment for all concerned.

Then, in 1501, the council approached another citizen, the son of a local official, asking him if he would complete the ambitious project, using the broken slab. Fortunately for them, the young man was Michelangelo Buonarroti. He was 26 years old, filled with energy, skill, and imagination. Michelangelo locked himself inside the workshop behind the cathedral to chisel and polish away on the stone for three years.

When the work was finished, it took 49 men five days to bring it to rest before the city hall. Archways were torn down. Narrow streets were widened. The people from across Europe came to see the 14-foot statue of David relaxing after defeating Goliath. It was even more than the city fathers had envisioned. The giant stone had been transformed from the massive fractured waste of rock to a masterpiece surpassing the art of either Greece or Rome.

Sam Whatley, Pondering the Journey (True Life Publishers, 2002), pp.17-18.

The Unmaking of the Ungodly

In this excerpt from a sermon preached at Trinity Church, Boston, the Episcopalian Priest Fleming Rutledge describes the amazing  work of Will Campbell:

The last time I was here, your rector Sam Lloyd and I talked lot about the incomparable Southern activist, folklorist, and theologian Will Campbell. Will’s extraordinary New Testament radicality enabled him to maintain relationships with black victims of the KKK and at the same time with the KKK murderers. Literally. Brothers and sisters, that’s not “inclusion.” That’s the resurrection of the dead. Indeed that is exactly what Paul says toward the end of Romans 11:

For if [God’s temporary judgment upon unbelievers] means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?… So do not become proud, but stand in awe.

All his life, Will Campbell has said, over and over, that it is God’s intention, not just to “accept” the ungodly, but to unmake the ungodly, that is you and me, in a way that we could never do ourselves, by giving life to the dead and calling into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17). What are these things that do not exist? (Romans 4:17). What are these things that do not exist? They are people who are righteous as he is righteous. That is the promised future of God.

…At the 1998 trial of KKK Grand Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Will Campbell went back and forth between Bowers and the family of a man he killed, civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. When asked by reporters how he could do this, ’Will growled, “Because I’m a God-damned Christian.”

Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.


By Their Work You have Been Threshed

In this excerpt from a sermon on the Lord’s Supper delivered by Augustine of Hippo to a group of Catechumens, (a Christian believer preparing for Baptism) the great bishop compares the process in which a seed becomes wheat, which ultimately becomes bread, and then Communion, to the process of becoming a baptized Christian. Augustine, following in the footsteps of Jesus, likens the process of sanctification to the threshing of wheat, with the separation of the wheat from the chaff.

Call to mind what this created thing [bread] once was in the field. How the earth brought it forth, the rain nourished it, and ripened it into an ear of wheat and then human labor brought it together on the threshing floor, threshed it, winnowed it, stored it up again, took it out, ground it, added water to it, baked it, and only at that moment made it into the form of a loaf.

Call to mind also: you did not exist, you were created, you were brought together to the threshing floor of the Lord by the labor of the oxen, that is, by those who announced the gospel, by their work you have been threshed.

When as catechumens you had to wait [for your baptism], you were stored up in the granary. You had given your names [put them on a list for baptism], and you began to be ground by fasting and exorcisms. Later on you came to the water, and you were sprinkled, and you were made one. When the fervor of the Holy Spirit came upon you, you were baked and you were made into the loaf of the Lord.

See what you have received. Just as, therefore, you see that the loaf which has been made is one, so you also are to be one, by loving one another, by keeping one faith, one hope, and undivided love.

Taken from Augustine of Hippo, Third Sermon: Sermon Denis 6, 1–3.

Union with Christ

Union with Christ fundamentally and irrevocably changes our relationship to sin. Our old self has been crucified (Rom. 6:6), and sin has no dominion over us (v. 14). This doesn’t mean a part of us called the “old nature” has been replaced with a different substance called a “new nature.” Paul is not talking about parts. He is talking about position. The old man is what we were “in Adam” (cf. 5:12–21). Death, sin, punishment, transgression—that’s the “in Adam” team.

But we died to that team. The contract was revoked. We now wear the “in Christ” jersey. Union with Christ is like being placed on an NFL football team through no talent of your own. Though you didn’t earn your way on to the team, now that you wear the jersey you want to play like a real football player.

Taken from The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung, © 2012, pp.103-104. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.


The Impact of a Heart Attack

In Bob Benson’s book See You at the House he recounts the story of a friend who had a heart attack. At first it didn’t seem like the man would live, but eventually he would recover, Months later, Bob asked him:

“Well, how did you like your heart attack?”

“It scared me to death, almost.”

“Would you do it again?”


“Would you recommend it?”

“Definitely Not.”

“Does your life mean more to you now than it did before.”

“Well, yes.”

“You and Nell have always had a beautiful marriage, but are you closer now than ever?”


“How about that new granddaughter?”

“Yes. Did I show you her picture?”

“Do you have a new compassion for people-a deeper understanding and sympathy?”


“Do you know the Lord in a deeper, richer fellowship than you had ever realized could be possible?”


“…how’d you like your heart attack?

Bob Benson, See You at the House

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